Detroit —The Yankees weren't a popular preseason pick to make the playoffs, and not a whole lot has changed on that front after a couple good series in a row, even one against the high-flying Tigers.
But they have the makings of a confident team — especially if they have a lead, however small, entering the late innings.
Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are that good.
"Well, you'd like to have more than a one-run lead," Mark Teixeira said, laughing, after the Yankees beat the Tigers, 2-1, on Thursday to take the four-game set at Comerica Park three games to one. "If we can shorten the game to seven innings, I'll take my chances all year long."
One Yankee went even further.
"We thought it'd be a strength for us, and that's what it's proven to be so far," Chase Headley said. "If we can get through five, six innings ahead, I feel really good about our chances."
Betances, 27, pitched 1.1 innings of perfect baseball Thursday, keeping his ERA at 0.00 for the season, while running his strikeout to 12 in 9.1 innings.
And Miller, 29, closed it out with one of the most impressive saves you'll see. He went through Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez like they were nothing. Miller struck out Cabrera, got a great play from Headley at third on Victor Martinez, and then struck out J.D. Martinez.
The lanky lefty also kept his ERA at 0.00, and has 15 strikeouts in 7.1 innings.
Was it easy as it looked?
"Uh, no," said Miller, still as baby-faced as the day the Tigers made him a first-round draft pick in 2006. "It never is.
"I think it's a little bit easier to focus and bear down on those guys, cuz those are some pretty big names, some Hall of Fame-caliber hitters.
"It's certainly fun when you succeed against those guys, but it's a heck of a challenge."
A challenge you prefer?
"I don't think," said Miller, smiling again, "anybody truly wants to face Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez with the game on the line."
Miller has come a long way since he was the Tigers' blue-chip prospect, in 2006 and 2007. His first major-league appearances were as a reliever, but the Tigers always saw him as a starter.
So, too, did the Marlins in December 2007, when they made their infamous trade of Cabrera to the Tigers for Miller, Cameron Maybin, Burke Badenhop and others.
But it was as a reliever Miller found his niche. And he's been nasty ever since, first with the Red Sox, with whom he won a World Series in 2013, and then the Orioles, with whom he swept the Tigers right out of the 2014 playoffs.
The Orioles only got Miller last July because they upped their offer right before the trade deadline; the Tigers thought they were acquiring Miller and David Price, but Miller fell through without so much of a phone call from the Red Sox.
There were no interest in Miller this offseason from the Tigers, though, even with their bullpen travails. Their payroll is really high around $170 million, and it had no room for a guy who'd get a four-year, $36-million deal from the Yankees to be their closer — even though he'd never been a closer.
That's how good Miller is. He was big in this series, finishing the Tigers off despite their furious ninth-inning rally Tuesday, and then getting the easy-does-it save Thursday.
"For me, personally, it doesn't really mean anything," Miller said of beating his old team. "I came here and pitched in a playoff game and stuff like that. It's always nice come back. But this is a really good Tigers team, that's a really good lineup. We had a big series in Tampa (a sweep before the Tigers series), but to come in here and play a team that probably most people think is a real contender and show we can hold our own, is certainly nice."
Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez probably didn't think it was nice.
Most of Thursday's crowd of 27,754 stayed until the end, because with those three guys coming up, anything's possible. In fact, in all of baseball, you'd be hard-pressed to find three better guys — all right-handed, with power — to face Miller with the team down one.
But eight pitches later, the game was over, the crowd was silenced.
The Cabrera at-bat was particularly stunning. Few pitchers have ever made him look like that.
"I hate to say overmatched," said Headley, "but you don't see him take a lot of bad swings, swing at bad pitches. That just shows what Andrew's capable of."
Said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus: "He's a very good pitcher. He showed last year with Baltimore, this guy's a high-caliber, back-end-of-the-bullpen pitcher."
He's just not a Tiger — even though he used to be, and he almost was again.
That's a tough pill to swallow for Tigers fans who've seen their bullpen do OK this year, but not this week. They certainly don't have anything like Miller and Betances. Few teams do.